Turkey strains under surge of Syrian refugees

Clashes between Kurds and riot police as 150,000 cross border

About 150,000 Syrians, mostly Kurds from northern and eastern Syria, have poured over the border into Turkey in search of safety during the past week but they are finding life on Turkish soil little better than it was at home.

“People are sleeping on the ground, in mosques, in parks; there is no one to help us,” said Reber Temir from Qamishle, a predominantly Kurdish city in Syria close to the Iraqi border. “The UN is readying a camp but has yet to launch an outreach effort.”

Temir, who arrived in the Turkish border town of Suruc four days ago, said more than 2,000 refugees had entered Turkey from a single crossing on Monday alone, and reported that clashes between local Kurds angry at tight border controls and riot police have been continuing in Suruc and Urfa, a regional hub 45km to the north.

“The biggest problem here in Suruc is the shortage of baby formula – the humanitarian situation is extremely bad,” he said.


Earlier this month fighters from the extremist Islamic State (IS) turned their attention to regaining territory in northern Syria, having faced American air strikes in Iraq. Now, its offensive in Syria centres on Ain al-Arab, or Kobani as it is known to Kurds, a city that sits snugly against the Turkish border, 10km south of Suruc.


Dost Kobani (27) refuses to leave Ayn al-Arab even as most others have escaped.

"We are in crisis. There is no water, no electricity. The situation is especially bad today. There's only one bakery open, but there is no one able to distribute bread," he told The Irish Times in a telephone interview.

He said his family was staying with him though about 80,000 civilians from the town are thought to have fled IS advances from the south and east this week.

“Ninety per cent of the shops here have closed because everyone has left for Turkey,” said Kobani. The border crossing into Turkey opens at 10 each morning, he said, but only for a short time.

Jihadists have reached to within 15km of the city chiefly by deploying suicide bombers and tanks against Kurdish militia checkpoints south of the Kobani. Dozens of Kurdish towns and villages in north- central Syria have been captured by IS in recent weeks.

"We are preparing for the whole population fleeing into Turkey," the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said yesterday.

More than a million people have fled the Syrian violence to Turkey since 2011.


Turkey has faced criticism at home and overseas for turning a blind eye to the extremists who crossed into Syria during the course of the war. Despite sharing borders with areas of Syria and Iraq in close proximity to IS-controlled territory, Turkey is not taking part in the ongoing United States-led air strikes against jihadist positions in northern Syria.

Government officials visited areas in south Turkey inundated by refugees last weekend.

"We have made all the necessary preparations, which include logistical support, the aid to be supplied by Turkey's disaster agency," said Turkey's deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus. "We hope we are not faced with a greater flow of refugees even though all the details are prepared."

Mustafa Cayci, the owner of Otel Ugur in Urfa, said between 30 and 40 people in groups of families had sought accommodation at his hotel over the past several days. Some were told the 18-room hotel was fully booked.

“I don’t like kids staying in the hotel: they cause problems for other guests,” he said. “If there are couples who want to stay here that’s no problem.”

Air strikes against IS targets across northern Syria are likely to lead to a new wave of refugees into southern Turkey in the coming days. Wedding halls, schools gyms and open roadsides in Suruc, Urfa and elsewhere along the Syrian border have been serving as temporary housing for the fleeing Syrians.

“Quite frankly we don’t know when those numbers will end; we don’t know what the future holds,” said UNHCR Turkey representative Carol Batchelor.

“It could well go again into the hundreds of thousands.”